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What does 'best interest of the child' mean?

The phrase used consistently when dealing with the question of how California courts handle the matter of child custody is "best interest of the child." Those five little words may seem to be rather straightforward. But what can constitute best interest is really hard to define sometimes. And the way we commonly define words isn't always the way the legal system does.

Obviously, how words are interpreted by the court has a big effect on the outcome of child custody issues and so understanding the nuances of usage is important. That's something that tends to come only with qualified legal training and experience. So what is the meaning from a legal perspective? Read on.

In the broadest of terms, what defines best interest for the court is that combination of custody and support terms that serve to best encourage the child's happiness, security, general development and overall mental health.

While many factors may be examined, it's generally accepted that fostering close, loving relationships with both parents should take priority. Of course, depending on the specific circumstances of the parents, striking a balance can be difficult. If there is any history of physical or emotional abuse by a parent, contact could be restricted. The same is true if there is a history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Other factors commonly considered in making child custody arrangements include:

  • What the child wants: This presumes the child is old enough to clearly articulate preferences.
  • If a child has special needs: Not only are the needs assessed, but the ability of each parent to meet them.
  • Cultural or religious desires.
  • Access to and interaction with extended family.
  • Integration into community or school.
  • The age and sex of the child.

It's also important to remember that what is deemed in the best interest of the child today may be different later on. If changes mean a modification is called for, it can be sought, but the court will want to be sure that it serves the well-being of the child.

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